Crisis in civics ed? Revival is under way.
In the face of a culture that promotes individualism, more high schools encourage debate and service.
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One skill at the center of the program Mr. Polito directs is "close reading," which teaches students the importance of keeping certain questions in mind when reading everything from historical documents to financial news. For example: What's the author's purpose and context? What's the significance of specific words?Skip to next paragraph
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It's empowering for students to discover texts this way, Polito says. "Poems, stories, speeches, and documents like the Constitution are all examples of rhetoric. And students need to know how to engage and respond to those different rhetorics."
Zia Jaffrey, a writer with experience around the world, is currently teaching a nonfiction workshop in the program. As she strives to have her students incorporate broader political themes into their writing, she's finding that some resist, and some don't know where to start. "My thing with students is for them to get out of themselves," she says. But it's difficult, she adds, because she's up against a culture that emphasizes celebrity and narcissism.
The course lit a fire under Chiara Fudge, a junior at The New School and an aspiring novelist. She says her parents' service in the military (including her father's duty in the 1991 Gulf War) left her with mixed emotions about US policies. "I kind of stepped away from really getting involved with politics, but now I know that I have to," she says. "We don't live in a bubble.... Everything that happens to your neighbor ... affects all of us."
When she talks to friends outside of New York, she's frustrated that they seem to be absorbing a message from society that she sums up as: "Make money, look great, and you'll rise to the top." But in the Writing and Democracy Program, she says, she feels better equipped to effect change. "It's important for someone like myself who's passionate to say something and maybe inspire someone else to get involved."
Turning away from rote learning is also the approach at Constitution High School. With 90-minute classes there's time for regular local field trips, says principal Davidson. Partners such as the National Constitution Center provide unique learning opportunities, and each year the students will engage in a public service project.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute provides lesson plans and brings some of its 60,000 primary documents to schools. On its website (www.gilderlehrman.org), students can read and compare wartime letters from the Revolutionary War all the way up to the current conflict in Iraq.
"The goal is not to have the teacher just cover history," Mr. Serber says, "but to help the students discover history."
On a recent test designed to measure knowledge of American history, civics, and economics, college freshmen and seniors scored an average of 51.7 percent and 53.2 percent respectively – failing grades. Here are a few of the multiple-choice questions. We have permission to show you the correct answers, but not all the choices, as some students are still being tested.
Question: In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed a series of government programs that became known as ...
Answer: the New Deal.
Comment: Freshmen and seniors scored highest on this: 83.4 percent of the seniors and 80.7 percent of freshmen got it right.
Q: During which period was the American Constitution amended to guarantee women the right to vote?
Comment: Seniors scored 58.4 percent, freshmen 59.4 percent.
Q: According to 'just war' theory, a just war requires which of the following?
A: the authority of a legitimate sovereign.
Comment: Only 15.6 percent of students answered this one right – the lowest score.
Q: Which of the following was an alliance to resist Soviet expansion?
A: North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Comment: The combined total percent who answered correctly was 45.5.
Q: Which of the following is the best measure of production or output of an economy?
A: Gross Domestic Product.
Comment: Freshmen scored 68.9 percent and seniors scored 74.4 percent.
Source: Intercollegiate Studies Institute